Khaled Hosseini is a consummate story-teller and following the impact of his first novel - 'The Kite Runner' - his second was always likely to be awaited with bated breath. But, while there are plenty of examples of seminal music albums that have disappointing follow-ups, or movie sequels that never quite reach the highpoint of the original, in this book Hosseini cements his reputation as a genuinely gifted writer.
Once again set in Afghanistan, this story focuses on the respective journeys of two women - Mariam and Laila - and the dissection of the book into four parts helpfully describes their individual experiences, before interweaving their lives within the context of war-locked Kabul and a hinterland dominated by armed factions. Seen through the eyes of these women, this book also offers a powerful critique of a social structure, which layers disadvantage based on gender, wealth, religion, tribe, marriage,birth, language, disability, etc. The domestic violence, which they experience at the hands of their husband (Rasheed), is brutal and possible in the absence of protection for the vulnerable and a paternalistic culture which seems to regard women and children as chattels. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, the antidote to such systematic hardship proved to be the indomitable human spirit and the innate capacity for reciprocal love.
Almost in spite of the dire consequences of the soviet invasion and the transition to the equally destructive Taliban rule and its subsequent demise, the period covered by the book, Hosseini has managed to extricate a wonderfully uplifting tale of love in diverse forms. Positive and negative attachments to parents, the powerful but not universal instinct to protect children, as well as the strength of selfless romantic love, as distinct from pragmatic survival mechanisms, conjures up some challenging moral dilemmas for the reader. Moreover, the sisterly bonding of Mariam and Laila in an unspoken connection of damaged souls is arguably the most touching of all.
Amid the physical war damage and emotional carnage, the author nonetheless manages to eke out a testament to human resilience and deep-rooted optimism. However, it is the strength and resolve of the central female characters that offer most pride in the human virtues on show. My favourite quote from the book follows the mourning of Laila's brothers, when the character perceives a hierarchy in her mother's affections, "....Mammy's heart was like a pallid beach where Laila's footprints would forever wash away beneath the waves of sorrow that swelled and crashed.Swelled and crashed." In the final analysis, Laila's courage was every bit as worthy of her mother's reverence.
On reflection, I believe one of the most engaging factors for the reader steeped in western culture is the apparent difference in certain values, most notably in respect of women (though notably feminists would argue there is still a way to go), but also, reassuringly, common humane principles that derive from the respective civilizations. The 'otherness' is a seductive curiosity, however, it should not be overstated, for as Hosseini demonstrates, our aspirations are remarkably similar.
This is Hosseini's third novel, his weakest so far.
The story begins with the separation of the siblings Abdullah and Pari when Pari is sold to a childless rich couple in Kabul. What follows is a collection of short stories of people who are sometimes closely, sometimes loosely connected to that event, stories of love, of friendship, of blurred lines between these two, of family, of failure, of how people deal with loss, sickness, disfigurement in their own ways. And of how loved ones might not turn out to be whom you thought them to be.
"Sometimes a finger must be cut to save the hand."
Again, Hosseini manages to weave a tapestry with his words, especially the first story of about 50 pages, and the stories and allegories which are turned into reality within that one, showcase his tremendous abilities as a writer. But as much as the main story arc comes together in the end, there are unfortunately parts that remain apart, that don't mesh with the others... well, that don't quite fit right into this tapestry. Maybe it's the various changes in story-telling, maybe it's the way people are included who don't actually feature in the main plot, but in my opinion 2 or 3 of those short stories could have been cut without damaging the overall arc.
Even though this novel didn't grip me as much as his 2 previous ones - although, make no mistake, some stories, the first one, Nabi's and of course the bittersweet ending, again an allegory in itself about the blessing and the curse of forgetting, of letting go and of holding on, again brought a lump to my throat if not outright tears to my eyes -, I'm still in awe of Hosseini's talent and definitely on the lookout for his next book.